‘Liquid fire’ of neon tells local history in ways no book can, and the Kern County Museum has it on permanent exhibit

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – If architecture can help express the culture of a city, the signage of its brick and mortar buildings can help express its history. If the period of time in question is early post-war, the language of that expression is often neon. And if the city in question is Bakersfield, the encyclopedia resides at the Kern County Museum and, specifically, its Mission Bank Neon Plaza.

Sadly, the era of neon has waned. Other types of lighting are cheaper, more cost-effective. So, as Kern County Museum Executive Director Mike McCoy says, the look of city streets has changed.

“Neon’s heyday was the 1940s and 50s,” he said. “And then it started to fade. And then in the late ‘60s, early’70s, you went with illuminated plastic.”

As businesses that used neon two or three generations ago fell away to time, neon signs inevitably came down.

“And now,” McCoy said, “it’s back in its heyday again.”

Yes, neon is back, if even only in settings like the Kern County Museum, which has had a collection of restored local neon signs for more than a decade. But last year the pace of interest accelerated and McCoy saw Neon Plaza grow from eight neon signs to 35.

And Neon Plaza – used as a venue for community events and parties – has become a history book of sorts.

“Each one of these signs kinda tells the story of the community,” McCoy said.

There’s the sign that got the museum’s collection re-started a year ago – the distinctive red and green neon of Amestoy’s Bar, a 71-year-old tavern on River Boulevard, now demolished, owned by Frank and Marie Amestoy.

“Frank was absolutely delightful,” McCoy said. “Him and his old string tie and his charming wife.”

Floyd’s Hardware sign displayed in the Kern County Museum.

Then the signs started coming in rapid succession. Jolly Kone, Dewar’s, Hoyett’s Drive-In, Shafter Rexall Drugs, Saba’s Men’s Wear, Floyd’s Hardware.

McCoy’s favorite in the collection might be Andre’s Drive-In. 

“John Andre came out, he was in his 90s, had his photograph taken under the sign,” McCoy said. “Then he passed away like a month later.”

Another favorite, because McCoy was a patron there too, was the Far East Cafe on 18th Street. That was one of the signs that former museum director Carola Rupert Enriquez brought in back in 2008, along with Top’s Market of Wasco, and Jim Baker Electrifier. 

“Carola is the one who had the vision to collect neon signs when she saw these businesses going down and put ‘em out in the plaza,” McCoy said. “And so we were sitting like that for about 15 years with eight signs. And then a guy donated another sign from Amestoy’s and that got the ball rolling. So we went from eight to 30 in one year.”

The Far East Cafe opened in 1951 and closed in 2000 but part of the sign dates in 1942 when the Chinese Village Cafe was in the same location.

It was open till 4 a.m. so bartenders, like McCoy in those days, could get a late bite.

“(The owner) was really a nice man,” McCoy said. “He had a very pretty daughter.”

And he was smart enough, though, to send his cute waitress-daughter home at 8, long before the likes of Mike McCoy came in.

Every neon sign has a story.

“If you dented your Buick back in ‘58, you went and saw C.N. Johnson,” said McCoy, pointing to the shop’s distinctive sign.

“Vince Clerou was in business down there for years. You bought a ball glove or a bicycle, you got it from Vince,” he said, pointing to another.

Thousands of prom dates over the years started at Sinaloa. The Mexican restaurant opened in 1948 on 20th Street, in an old orphanage. Stinson’s Stationers, also represented, was an office supply landmark on Baker Street. 

Neon Plaza has a couple of non-neon interlopers. One is the U.S. Army missile – a fake one – that Milton “Spartacus” Miller positioned atop his Padre Hotel – aimed, as the legend goes, at City Hall. It wasn’t really.

Then there’s Neon Plaza’s original tenant – an old Union 76 gas station, which was moved from East 18th Street in 1989 and restored in 1993.

When the gas station was built in 1936, gas was 15 and a half cents a gallon.

The collection is eclectic.

“It’s kind of a mix of restaurants, industrial, like Sandstone, Stewart Electric,” McCoy said. “And then everyone is grieving over the fact that we lost (a classic sign).”

That would be the Green Frog Market sign. That one went to the neon museum in Glendale. But McCoy found a second Green Frog sign, less elaborate but a great find just the same.

He doesn’t want to let any more neon gems escape if he can help it. And, thanks to some generous donations to the museum, he already has a few newcomers to the collection awaiting renovation.

McCoy mourns the ones that got away – the distinctive sign at the old Oildale honky-tonk Trout’s, which disappeared right around the time its former manager left town, the old Blackboard Cafe sign, which is probably in a landfill somewhere, and the two non-neon Sun Fun Stay Play freeway signs, which suffered similar fates. He’s determined not to miss out on others. 

“We’re going to keep going,” he said. “When you see neon, it’s like mariachi music, it’s party time. It’s liquid fire.”

And it’s local history conveyed in a way no book can convey it. And one McCoy hopes museum visitors are excited to read, over and over.

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